Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 3 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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core definition

1. Level refers to the complexity and depth of learning.

2. Level refers to the formally designated location of a part of a study programme within the whole.

explanatory context

Level is usually enumerated on an ordinal scale (for example, level 1, level 2, and so on upwards, or elementary, intermediate, advanced), which implies a continuous increase. Occasionally, the scale may contain discontinuities as in undergraduate levels 1 to 3 followed by postgraduate level M, which implies a progression but not necessarily a linear one.


Levels are often linked to years of study.


Levels imply that the amount of learning can some how be measured or encapsulated in a level of study, which may be codified through a level descriptor.

Level is also used to refer to different types of degree, viz. associate/foundation, bachelors, masters, doctorate.

analytical review

The University of Exeter (2007) defines level as:

Level: An indicator of the relative demand, complexity and depth of learning, associated with a module or stages of a programme or of a qualification.

The University distinguishes level from stage:

Stage: The identification of the point in their studies at which students undertake a defined element of a programme.

QAA(2010) defines level as:

Level is a broad indicator of the relative demand, complexity, depth of study and autonomy of learning associated with a particular award. Descriptions of the levels of UK higher education awards are given in the FHEQ and the SCQF.

HEFCE (undated), defines level as:

Level of study refers to undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG). It may also be used to refer to sub-categories of these, such as sub-degree provision, or postgraduate taught and postgraduate research activity.


associated issues

Level and quality

In clarifying the link between level and quality, Fraser (1994, p. 103) noted:

Level. A doctorate programme is at a higher level than one leading to a baccalaureate. This does not mean that doctoral programmes are of higher quality than baccalaureate programmes.


Blackmur (2004) reveals inconsistencies in international comparability:

In the context of international comparisons, furthermore, it may be worth noting that the post-graduate certificate, post-graduate diploma and master’s degrees are all located on the same level (11) in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, but that they are located, respectively, on successively ‘higher’ levels (9,10 and 11) on the Australian Qualifications Framework. Examples of such inconsistencies can be multiplied. In New Zealand, post-graduate diplomas, post-graduate certificates and bachelor’s degrees with honours are located on the same level (level 8) but this level, unlike in the Scottish case, does not include master’s degrees. Honours degrees are, moreover, located on level 10 of the Scottish framework whereas ‘ordinary degrees’ are assigned to level 9. In the AQF, however, both types of degree are allocated to the same level (8). If the Scottish authorities, assign a post-graduate diploma and a master’s degree to the same NQF level, while the New Zealand authorities assign them to different levels, what is the international labour market to make of this?

These qualifications either belong to the same level or they do not. Or, perhaps, despite common titles, a post-graduate diploma in one country is not a post-graduate diploma in another. Or, perhaps, the definition of the concept of a level in one NQF is not the same as the definition of a level in another. This is certainly the case when the AQF definition of the characteristics of a bachelor’s degree is compared to the level descriptors of the levels to which bachelor’s degrees are assigned in other national classifications. The AQF defines the outcomes of a Bachelor’s degree to include the ability to extend knowledge and techniques. Not all other systems include this outcome. (AQFAB, 2002, 49). In this context, then, public-relations claims such as ‘The introduction of the New Zealand Register of Quality Assured Qualifications….will enhance New Zealand’s capacity to benchmark qualifications internationally’ (NZQA, 2003b, p. 2) ought to be treated with more than the usual degree of scepticism.


Levels: a continuous vertical scale?

Blackmur (2004) also argues that most structures of levels, as for example as embodied in qualifications frameworks, are not measuring conceptually the same thing throughout the scale of levels.

In the Scottish case, level-1 relates to the characteristics of people and not just qualifications: ‘Level 1 represents outcomes designed for learners with severe and profound learning difficulties.’ (SQA, 2003a, p. 1). It is thus conceptually distinct from the other levels on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, and from all levels on other NQFs.

Vertical comparisons are rendered difficult (particularly from the perspective of ‘outside observers’ such as participants in the labour market) for other reasons. Thus, levels 1 to 7 of the New Zealand Register/NQF contain outcomes that are defined, grouped and compared in terms of process, learning demand, and responsibility. Levels 8, 9 and 10 are, however, defined on a significantly different basis. They contain, for example, no ‘responsibility’ dimension. Levels 9 and 10, furthermore, employ a wider definition of standards than do the earlier levels by explicitly requiring that outcomes be demonstrated at ‘internationally recognised standards’. [i]

It is thus conceptually impossible to effect meaningful vertical comparisons between levels 1 to 7 on the one hand, and levels 8 to 10 on the other, in the New Zealand model. The implications for the integrity of international comparisons can be serious given that, for example, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, unlike the New Zealand NQF, does contain explicit ‘autonomy, accountability and working with others’ outcomes at the level equivalent to the New Zealand level 10 (NZQA, 2003a, p.16; SQA, 2003a: n.p.; AQFAB, 2002, pp. 55, 57).

[i] AQF level 12 is ‘equivalent’ to New Zealand level 10. Both include an ‘international standards’ measure of outcome complexity. It would be interesting to discover the source of these international standards to which the qualifications frameworks in Australia and New Zealand refer. Are there trans-national standards’ generating bodies? Also, New Zealand level 9 (AQF level 11) measures outcomes complexity in terms of international standards whereas the AQF does not.

related areas

See also

level descriptor


Blackmur, D., 2004, A critique of the concept of a national qualifications framework, Quality in Higher Education, 10(3)

Fraser, M., 1994, ‘Quality in higher education: an international perspective’ in Green, D. (Ed.), 1994, What is Quality in Higher Education? pp. 101–111 (Buckingham, Open University press and Society for Research into Higher Education)

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 31 December 2016.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), 2010, Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education. Collaborative provision and flexible and distributed learning (including e-learning) Amplified version October 2010, available at, accessed 20 September 2012, page not available 3 January 2017.

University of Exeter, 2007, TQA Manual, Learning and Teaching Definitions, Last updated August 2007, last reviewed September 2011 (originally 2002), accessed 20 September 2012, still available 3 January 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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